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Old 04-03-2020, 05:45 PM   #38
The Squatter of Amon Rdh
Spectre of Decay
 
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Location: Bar-en-Danwedh
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Pipe Reinterral

Beyond the Edge of the known universe, far past the ends of the Twittering Hells and beyond the reach even of the Googloid Hegemony, lie the wide grey plains of the Offline.

In these asphodel fields, beneath jet skies and dying stars, the sightless and endlessly hungering husks of the Old Net wander, gnawed at by insatiable hunger, tormented with unslakable thirst; forgetful of all but a pitiless, griping Need.

Conscious, too, of the nightmare babel through which they must pass to catch the merest scent of a lolcat meme or amusing badger video. These forsook the horror of a world run mad, only to discover beyond their barred gates and bolted doors that they had left in the asylum a map and the keys, and that the inmates had followed, or perhaps that they had brought with them that which they flew.

In their despair the Old Ones forsook the Online, retreated into a real world that others had abandoned, and found that it could be worse and had bookshops.

In some far-flung corner of this virtual desert, made all the more virtual by its not being on a computer, and therefore meta-virtual, even doubly virtual. Maybe virtual cubed or something. Factorial of virtual. Imaginary, in any case. Figurative if you will. You get my point. Anyway, in some nameless corner of the ashen lunar plain stands a ruinous house. In that dread place, which even Gomez Addams might have considered giving a lick of paint, lives a Collector.

What exactly he collects, where he finds it, how, when and even why are all indeed questions. He might say "things" or, being a pretentious sort, "unconsidered trifles." Mostly it appears to be dust, but to the hypothetical observer who has somehow arrived in this unedifying place its most notable content is unread books. Books in modern languages, books in dead languages; books about history, about pharmacology, about things that never were nor ever will be; books about other books; books about how to acquire yet more books and which they should be: on shelves, in boxes, in piles, stacks, heaps. Among these are some that appear actually to have been opened, and of those happy volumes more than are good for anyone's mental health are marked with a JRRT monogram. Amid this bibliophilic confusion sits, or I suppose you could say "squats", the Collector himself. Festooned with cobwebs, half-buried under the dust of ages, much about him is indeterminate; but the shape on his head might once have been a silk top hat. Perhaps the hypothetical observer has somehow brought him a hypothetical message through the fourth wall, and perhaps it concerns some sort of Party. Or perhaps an e-mail was sent to a work account. One of those things, almost certainly.

Beneath the shifting drifts, the figure stirs. Images like long-dead amphibians rise up from the stagnant pool of memory. Green. Green on black: emerald signal, but that was something else. So far down, downish. Downs. "Have fun posting and enjoy being dead." So many words. Much concerning a talking bow. A dry, cracked voice announces: "Yes, I was Squatter". A Summons has been received and even at this late hour must be heeded. What, he wonders, does he have in his pockets? Ah, six-month old till receipt, several sets of keys, lint, mothballs. All there. Ideal. Best take a flask too. Need the edge off with that many people about. In a great billow of forgotten years, a dark figure rises, tweaks some wax into its false moustache, and sets its feet on the long road back to its grave.

---


Many leagues through the plague-lands later, a less dusty but more rained-upon Squatter passed through Downish Quarantine. Fortunately, despite mild cases of croup, mange, the King's Evil, septicaemic plague and even the Red Death, he had somehow avoided the Nameless Pest, probably. The finest physicians known to automatic password recognition had declared it unanimously. So he was admitted, and in time came to the Dark Tower. I mean lit ballroom. Wait: we still have a ballroom? I thought it would be a cinema now. Or -he shuddered- a discotheque. No, apparently not. Someone had been busy. Probably Estelyn. Keeps the lights on. Casting his eyes about, he picked out familiar and fondly remembered faces of Discussions Past. Almost exclusively so. What year even is this? Can it be 2002 again? Looking forward to that new film by some New Zealander, but not having actually seen it. Those were good times. Is that Mithadan? Nice surprise. Not spoken in ages. Quested after that bow together. Blimey, Underhill will be in before you know it, then the fat will hit the fire. Laugh a minute. Whatever did we do with the Travest-o-Meter? Probably buried in some sub-basement. Unless we blew it up, of course: something like that may have happened. Not an admission of liability. Clear fictional damage case. Vandalism? Desecration? Bother Oxford council. No sense of humour.

These, of course, were the thoughts of but a moment. A nip of Talisker and an archaic figure in well-worn morning clothes a hundred years out of style sauntered up to his hostess and bowed. "Hi, Esty. Nice shindig. Sorry it's a bit late: dark road, came as I could. Twenty years, eh? They built them to last in those days."

Mysteriously, in spite of the thorough cleaning the room had undoubtedly received, the atmosphere seemed now ever so slightly more laden with dust, as though some old volume had been lifted from its bed of centuries so that someone could look up rude words. The summons was answered. Squatter was Online. How good a thing this would be remained to be seen.
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